The science of lovingkindness

Right at the very beginning of my meditation practice I was introduced to both mindfulness of breathing and the development of lovingkindness meditation. It was explained to me that both of these practices were equally important, that they were complementary, and that alternating these practices prevented imbalance in our approach. It was stressed, in fact, that sometimes lovingkindness practice is more important than mindfulness practice — especially for people who have a tendency toward being angry or over-critical.

I’ve never had cause to doubt any of that advice.

There are many meditators, however, who only practice mindfulness meditation, and often lovingkindness practice is seen as second-best. Generally in western Buddhist practice, there is a heavy emphasis on particular forms of mindfulness meditation. And no doubt because of this arguably narrow emphasis, that’s the form of Buddhist meditation that’s been most commonly studied in the burgeoning research on the effects of meditative practice.

But beside mindfulness there are traditionally many forms of meditation practice, with one common list — the kamma??h?nas (literally “places of work”) including no less than forty forms of meditation. And in the Buddhist scriptures generally, there is a heavy emphasis on lovingkindness (mett?) meditation, especially as part of the four brahmavih?ras, or sublime abodes.

Lovingkindness, fortunately, is becoming better known, and researchers are now studying the effects of practicing that form of meditation, showing that they positively affect health and well-being.

Here are a few highlights:

  • A study done at Stanford University used a brief lovingkindness meditation exercise to examine whether social connection could be created toward strangers in a controlled laboratory context. Compared with a closely matched control task, even just a few minutes of lovingkindness meditation increased feelings of social connection and positivity toward strangers on both conscious and unconscious levels.
  • A Duke University Medical Center pilot study tested an eight-week lovingkindness program for chronic low back pain patients. Patients were randomly assigned to practice lovingkindness or were given standard care. Standardized measures assessed patients’ pain, anger, and psychological distress. There were significant improvements in pain and psychological distress in the lovingkindness group — even after the study had ended. There were no improvements in the usual care group. An analysis of patients’ diaries showed that more lovingkindness practice on a given day was related to lower pain that day and lower anger the next day.
  • Researcher Barbara Fredrickson at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill took working adults and assigned them randomly to a lovingkindness meditation group or to a control group. Her study found that lovingkindness practice increased daily experiences of positive emotions, which in turn produced increases in a wide range of personal resources, including increased mindfulness, a sense of purpose in life, social support, and decreased illness symptoms. These increments in personal resources predict increased life satisfaction and reduced depressive symptoms.
  • In a study by Richard Davidson, scans revealed significant activity in the insula – a region near the frontal portion of the brain that plays a key role in bodily representations of emotion – when long-term meditators were generating compassion and were exposed to emotional vocalizations. The insula is extremely important in detecting emotions in general and specifically in mapping bodily responses to emotion – such as heart rate and blood pressure – and making that information available to other parts of the brain.
  • The same study showed increased activity in the temporal parietal juncture, particularly in the right hemisphere. Studies have implicated this area as important in processing empathy, especially in perceiving the mental and emotional state of others.
  • Compassion meditation has been shown to reduce reactions to inflammation and distress. An Emory University study showed a strong relationship between the time spent practicing meditation and reductions in inflammation and emotional distress in response to stress. Those who practiced the most meditation showed reductions in inflammation and distress in response to stressors when compared to the low practice group and the control group. As one of the researchers noted, “If practicing compassion meditation does reduce inflammatory responses to stress it might offer real promise as a means of preventing many conditions associated with stress and with inflammation including major depression, heart disease and diabetes.”
  • A review by researchers in the US and Germany suggested that Lovingkindness and compassion meditation “may provide potentially useful strategies for targeting a variety of different psychological problems that involve interpersonal processes, such as depression, social anxiety, marital conflict, anger, and coping with the strains of long-term caregiving.”

In some of these studies, the benefits were revealed after only twelve hours of meditation. Hopefully future studies will reveal yet more about the power of lovingkindness and compassion meditation.

If you’re interested in exploring lovingkindness practice in more depth, we have an extensive, free, self-paced guide, which includes audio guided meditations.

Related posts:

  1. There’s nothing to it and science agrees
  2. Mindfulness meditation eases Irritable Bowel Syndrome, study finds
  3. Introducing the Greater Good Science Center

Take me higher

Perhaps this is why I often imagine I’m doing my lovingkindness practice on a mountain-top:

Higher ground
Everyone assumes that heaven is high above the ground somewhere, while hell is down below. But why can’t heaven be below us, and hell high above? According to a new study, our brains seem to automatically link elevation with goodwill. In one experiment in a mall in mid-December 2009, researchers set up Salvation Army kettles in three locations: the top of an escalator, the bottom of an escalator, and away from any escalators. Shoppers contributed more often at the top of the escalator and least often at the bottom of the escalator. Likewise, in two experiments in an auditorium, people randomly assigned to sit on stage were more helpful and less malicious toward another person than people assigned to sit at floor level and especially more than people assigned to sit in the orchestra pit. People were also more cooperative after watching a video clip looking out the window of an airplane, compared with looking out the window of a car.

Sanna, L. et al., “Rising Up to Higher Virtues: Experiencing Elevated Physical Height Uplifts Prosocial Actions,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (forthcoming).

From the Boston Globe.

Lisa Jones on friendship, giving, and prayer

I should be in bed, but I just have to say that this NYT piece by Lisa Jones is one of the most beautiful things I have read in ages.

She writes about spending time on the Wind River Indian Reservation with Stanford Addison, a quadriplegic Northern Arapaho horse gentler and traditional healer.

Addison’s story of youthful violence, a devastating accident, and realization that he was a healer is inspiring.

Before his accident, he was as heartless and handsome as a young rebel could be. He was a small-time outlaw who busted broncs, broke hearts, robbed cafes and dealt drugs. After the accident, his 20-year-old body lay unmoving, visited by doctors, nurses, and spirits who began to endow him with unwanted healing powers.

After two years of hospitalization and rehab, he returned home, recognized the sorrow and pity in the eyes of his friends, and decided to kill himself. He tried, failed, and fell back on Plan B: He would get himself killed — which wasn’t all that hard to do on the reservation. But this didn’t work either. At a rowdy party, Stanford was antagonizing a drunk man with a hammer into what he hoped would become a murderous rage when the man put the hammer down, launched into a description the emotional pain that had always haunted him, and started sobbing.

Jones’s writing is compelling, and she too had a transformation, in which she came to appreciate the surrender of prayer.

Kneeling, I begged (which I never thought I’d do) for mercy (which I never thought I’d want). There I was, a former agnostic, the daughter of a psychiatrist, sobbing and begging, face to face with the unwelcome fact that I was a mortal, vulnerable, terrified animal. It helped. A lot.

She also comes to appreciate the grace that accompanies loving others:

Stanford says that the more you pray for others the better off you’ll be.

And now I can go to bed.

First we learned to love, then we learned to be smart

chimp and baby

Natalie Angier is my favorite science writer. Often I’ll be a couple of paragraphs into a science story, notice how well written it is, and realize it must be one of hers.

Her latest is a preview of a new book by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, “Mothers and Others: The Evolutionary Origins of Mutual Understanding,” which will be published by Harvard University Press in April.

The thesis of the book is that we evolved cooperation and social intelligence through learning to love babies. As Angier puts it:

…human babies are so outrageously dependent on their elders for such a long time that humanity would never have made it without a break from the great ape model of child-rearing. Chimpanzee and gorilla mothers are capable of rearing their offspring pretty much through their own powers, but human mothers are not.

Unlike chimps, our closest relatives, we spend a lot of time sharing child-care, even giving and receiving help from unrelated adults.

Our capacity to cooperate in groups, to empathize with others and to wonder what others are thinking and feeling — all these traits, Dr. Hrdy argues, probably arose in response to the selective pressures of being in a cooperatively breeding social group, and the need to trust and rely on others and be deemed trustworthy and reliable in turn. Babies became adorable and keen to make connections with every passing adult gaze. Mothers became willing to play pass the baby. Dr. Hrdy points out that mother chimpanzees and gorillas jealously hold on to their infants for the first six months or more of life. Other females may express real interest in the newborn, but the mother does not let go: you never know when one of those females will turn infanticidal, or be unwilling or unable to defend the young ape against an infanticidal male.

By contrast, human mothers in virtually every culture studied allow others to hold their babies from birth onward, to a greater or lesser extent depending on tradition.

Hrdy believes that cooperative childrearing arose a long time before our brains exploded in size. It’s a nice idea, that we learned to trust, and this allowed us to develop as more intelligent primates:

With helpers in the nest, women could give birth to offspring with ever longer childhoods — the better to build big brains and stout immune systems — and, paradoxically, at ever shrinking intervals. The average time between births for a chimpanzee mother is about six years; for a human mother, it’s two or three years. As a result of our combined braininess and fecundity, humans have managed to colonize the planet.

This suggests that love and cooperation are an absolutely central part of what it is to be human, not just in terms of our individual experience, but in terms also of our evolutionary history.

A valentine’s day thought on loving ourselves

Sujatin has a lovely post on self-metta:

The practice of metta (lovingkindness), uncovering the force of love that can uproot fear, anger, and guilt, begins with befriending ourselves. The foundation of metta practice is to know how to be our own friend. According to the Buddha,

“You can search throughout the entire universe for someone who is more deserving of your love and affection than you are yourself, and that person is not to be found anywhere. You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.”

How few of us embrace ourselves in this way! With metta practice we uncover the possibility of truly respecting ourselves. We discover, as Walt Whitman put it,

“I am larger and better than I thought. I did not think I held so much goodness.”

~ Sharon Salzberg, Lovingkindness